Autism for the Tillerman

“Sure, Shannon,” I said, letting her guide my hand to the CD player. “We’ll change it.”

It wasn’t until the previous year, when Shan was four, that such guidance validated our hunch, that she had musical preferences and favored adult fare far more than children’s.

“That’s one nice thing about autism,” I’d told friends. “At least in our case. You can toss Barney and Raffi. The Allman Brothers and Van Morrison are all you need.”

Throughout her life she craved having me pace her back and forth across the bedroom while such music played, in the same position as I would walk her much of the day. For five years, from fifteen pounds through fifty, I’d crooked my left arm in a crude ‘C’, where she nestled to take in the world the way a skier rides a chairlift. Therapists urged us to break the habit, but it kept her close, kept her affectionate, and allowed us to talk in our own untranslatable way.

As with all days, this one had been long. Mostly pleasant, mostly quiet, but long, particularly with her younger sister Flannery so mentally agile now at three. Autism, too, doesn’t parallel sound sleep, and while Shan had improved over the years, on good days she was still up at 6:00 and down by 10:30, with the bedroom music walk marking a protracted lullaby.

Having grown up in the Seventies, I’ve remained fond of the era’s soloists, with their unobtrusive sounds backgrounding many childhood memories. ‘Older Sister Music’ my friends and I would come to call it, and do still – Joni Mitchell, Jim Croce, James Taylor, Carly Simon.

Cat Stevens had won this particular night. Shan’s tastes rotate, but over these past few nights Stevens had been her choice. Like most people, she prefers just a few songs per CD, lifting my hand for the change whenever a favored one ends.

“There, Shan. Let’s try that,” I said, resuming our to and fro room travels while the next song began. As it often does, a cat purr vibrated her chest, translating to my own, underscoring once again how thoroughly autism can challenge, even reconstitute, its caregivers’ private paradigms.


Whether it was family or zeitgeist I’m not sure, but I grew up knowing little of contemporary politics. Reared in the shadows of Vietnam, Sixties disquiet, and Watergate, it could be that my parents mirrored weary people of the time by simply not discussing such things, at least in front of their kids. For me, this carried into adulthood. Right through 9/11, in fact, despite a persistent voting record, I doubt I could have defined ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ in a political context.

History, though, along with other pursuits, was different. My parents infused me with their respective devotions to the past along with any artistic endeavor that delved human nature, endowments which collided with what amounted to a political awakening when the planes hit the towers.


Cat Stevens is Muslim. I had known that much. Forfeiting his commercial prowess when he converted, he vanished from the public eye at his peak. At the time, that was all I knew, and apart from occasionally hearing him on the radio, I didn’t think much about him before Shannon took to those several songs still soaked with my own childhood as I ambled her back and forth.

“There, Shan. Better?”

Karen brought his Greatest Hits into our marriage, where with Shannon I listened in earnest for the first time. If the lyrics don’t point to Islam, they ooze spiritual longing, soulful vagabondage in need of a home, and I imagined that if the conversion had shocked his fans, to people who knew him his settlement on a certain faith was just a matter of time. Shannon enjoys melody more than speech, and eased further into my torso as I hummed and sang along.

Like politics, in-depth knowledge of orthodox faiths evaded me when young. Other than broad-stroke Judeo-Christian knowledge imbibed through simply being American, I knew nothing of specifics. During the Troubles of 1980’s Ireland, for instance, I asked my parents after another bombing what caused all the fuss.

“It’s involved,” my mom said, “but in short the Catholics hate the Protestants and the Protestants hate the Catholics,” but I had no idea what she was talking about. Of Islam I knew even less.

As I aged, though, and read, patterns emerged. Liturgical creatures, we require habit, permanence. If there was ever a time when humans didn’t splinter themselves along either biological variants or the confected ones of creed, culture, and worship, no memory recorded it. We’re innumerably divided, then, and whether aware of it or not gain at least unconscious comfort in the tidal sway those divisions create.  Leo Tolstoy said as much, asserting that human life is little more than a flux of war and peace.

As I played and re-played Shannon’ favorites, she moved in her accustomed revolutions, jumping stiff-legged on her little trampoline to maximize altitude before leaping again to my arms. Motion alone can slake any child, but it’s the exponential emollient of autism. Walking off the trampoline, she sat on the bed a moment, the sign that she’d jumped her last, then strode to my feet, hands high, issuing her lone word.



In any endeavor it’s mostly story that we’re after, and the largest portion of human story derives from suffering along with our ability to withstand or succumb.  On a cultural scale our greatest stories lie in war, and I long ago gave up pretending that I’m impervious to them, approaching it the way alcoholics do addiction – first by acknowledging a vulnerability then resisting it anew each day.

Over my lifetime 9/11 was the first prolonged challenge to that, and for more than a decade I’ve struggled not to slip. In war, afterall, there are enemies and allies, and after a life without imminent enemies I could now sense how easy it would be, soothing even, to fall into the ordinary debasement of Muslims. To align into one of two groups – us with our story, they with theirs – would be as simple, as liberating, as water finding its way.  Dark skin, dark eyes, dark beards, dark ways. Odd attire, odd creed, odd words, odd God. Filthy. Brutal. Sinful. Savage. So easy, so tempting, to elide the cumbersome occlusions of nuance and set yourself free.

“Easy, Shan. We’ll change it. There. Moonshadow.”

As far as I could tell, Cat Stevens was absent all menace. Acute spiritual ache aside, he seemed just another happy, hairy, healthy Hippie. In peace it’s easy to see that. In war it’s hardly possible, even dangerous. Threats, afterall, are real, but how many are ginned up for those coveted plot-lines is unknown. I only knew that I grew up on such narratives and craved them still.  As a child, maybe eight or nine, I mined my father for everything he knew of World War II, which was considerable. He was four years old to eight during the war, and much later took a job in San Francisco.

“Our neighbor was Orf Logan, a Dust Bowl Okie who went to Bakersfield. Orf lied about his age to join the Marines at sixteen. He was big, even then, and they made him a flame-thrower. He fought at Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. The Japanese hated flame-throwers, and those tanks made easy targets. He showed me and your mom a picture once of his training squad, from Life Magazine. There were ninety-nine guys, all smiling, and Orf pointed to himself and one other. ‘We’re the only two that made it without a scratch.'”

“He told me once that he’d done his best, but when he was walking around town he had to cross the street whenever he saw an Asian face, and as often as not went into a bar to settle down, as much to calm the hate still in him as to chase the screams of burning Japs from his head. It’s tough to walk half a block in San Francisco without passing a bar or seeing an Asian face.”

Such stories beguiled me, something already forming in Flannery. I’d taken her and Shan to Fort Wetherill that afternoon, an old World War II gun battery on Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay being re-ingested by coastal shrubland, where the dissipating artillery bunkers – root-cracked and weed-covered – are young mind wonderlands.

“It’s an old castle, Flan,” I’d said, carrying Shannon while Flannery poked about a crumbling turret, snatching at grasshoppers that popped off goldenrod whips.

“A long time ago, across the ocean, a mean king stomped all over the nice people. He had mean knights who wore yucky hats and walked funny and everyone thought they’d come here too, so the nice people here built this big castle to look for their ships.”

“And then what happened?”

Such call and return went for some time, through grasshoppers and blacked-out ammo dumps, a woodchuck and a field mouse, with Shannon perched in her crook, smiling, laughing, staring wide-eyed at moving creatures. A chipmunk. An Eastern Towhee. A Brown Thrasher. A Red-Tailed Hawk overhead. A gray squirrel, then two more. A cottontail rabbit. Eventually we descended, finding a strip of beach among igneous outcrops, hundred-foot cliffs hemming a deep cove. Shan slipped from my arms. On par with motion, water soothes her wholly. She toed her way to the surf, letting the salt’s advance and retreat wash her ankles before she pistoned up and down, splashing. “A chainsaw on a pogo stick,” a therapist once described her, and it’s so.

Flan found the inner chambers of a broken moon snail, gull-dropped and shattered. After tracing the shell’s delicate curvatures, though, she lost interest.

“Did the mean king ever come here, Da-Da?”

“No, Flan. The nice people here and everywhere went and fought him and his knights, then chased him into his castle and burned it down.”

“Will he come back?”

“No, Flan.”

“Will the knights with the yucky hats come back?”

“No. They’re all gone.”

“Were the hats really yucky?”

“Super yucky, like the knights inside.”

Shan heard none of it, simply reveling in the tide and the sand and the sun, in things that fly, run, and crawl. Water fountained out from each stomp and her hands shot down to her sides and up to the air then back and again. She broke off here and there only to chase the silver side schools daring the sun-touched shallows, soaking up summer’s remains.

That night, recycling Shannon’s Stevens’ preferences for a fifth time, I knew that I’d lied to Flannery. There will always be nice people and mean kings and mean knights with yucky hats with everyone everywhere lined up on the right and proper side, and things are so because we only think we want them otherwise. The plot, afterall, never changes, only settings and characters, and suffering will always supply the stories we crave.

Even at three I knew that Flan had already succumbed, and as I walked her now drowsing sister for a few final laps I equally knew that I could exchange the music for news at any time, to learn the coming casts and hear the Muses warm. Rebellion in the Ukraine, pinkos on the make. China tiffing with Japan, feigns to settle old scores. Iran, the Sudan, Nigeria. Headless bodies across Mexican deserts. Jihadi’s finally congealing, cutting off heads of their own, and always Jerusalem and Gaza, simmering.

Lowering the music, I could scarcely hear Stevens sing his own song – this of seeking, seeking God – as I laid Shannon down, pressing hair from flickering eyes.

I once had dreams of her, talking, interacting, engaging. At the snap of a finger or the wave of a wand she’d become the word we’ve been told to never use, normal, but at some point the dreams stopped, and I wondered if that didn’t have my unconscious sanction. Flannery is still a child, but the change is foreseeable, when the knights and kings and yucky hats will become our common discrepancies, those of Gods and creeds and colors, of commerce and of countries. With luck we’ll raise her to beat them back, but they’ll never erase, any more than will her heart or spleen.

As it stands, Shan remains pure, and will stay so. She’ll never become the things we know her to be. She’ll never be white, a woman, Christian, or American. She’ll only be, and I may have willed that magic wand away from an inability to bear it. As our daughter crossed over into normalcy there would be a moment, some brief confusion before the surrender, when what causes all the fuss would seem as feeble and strange as I can only imagine it must be, and I’d wave that same stick in fury to send her back, back from where she came.

Having rolled onto my shoulder, Shan had fallen asleep. It would be some time before I could move without waking her, and I laid in the dark, straining to hear the music.